Jude Collins

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Peter Hain and the horrible hackers

The Germans have a word for it - schadenfreude.  Loosely translated, it means taking pleasure in the misfortune of others. So how did you feel when you heard about Peter Hain this morning? Apparently bronzed Peter's computer, which may have contained "sensitive security information" was hacked by people working for newspapers while he was British secretary of state for this warped corner .  This follows yesterday's testimony to the Levison Inquiry, when the British intelligence officer Ian Hurst aka Martin Ingram, who is understood to have run informers within the IRA , said that his computer had been hacked by people working for The News of the World. Both Peter and Martin are seriously upset by this fact.

I'm not. Yes, I know that's socially irresponsible, and I know Peter and Martin have all our interests at heart, but I don't feel upset at the news. There was a time - there may well be still a time - when an awful lot of people here assumed their phone-calls were being monitored, their emails intercepted, their movements tracked at every turn. You didn't have to be a criminal or a terrorist - it was enough if the authorities thought you might, um, bear watching. Have criminal tendencies. And now that you and I have access to Google Earth for free, which can let us see into our neighbour's back garden,  imagine what the security boys can do with their professional, paid-for-by-you-and-me equipment. That little nick on the back of your thumb? Right now somebody is probably studying that through a satellite spy-camera. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, there were those who were highly insulted if they thought their phone-calls weren't being tapped. Whaddyamean, I'm not important enough?

So there is a delicious kind of irony at Hain and Hurst/Ingram going all puff-cheeked about News International taking a look at what they were up to. Is that because  H and H had important information to conceal and we hadn't/haven't? If that's the case, what were they doing spying on us in the first place?

Chomp. That's the sound of the biter being bitten. Put on your party hat - it's schadenfreude time.

Monday, 28 November 2011

The BBC, a woman in a shower and your head's cut

I once knew a woman who talked aloud in the shower. Her husband said she did it to rid herself of the torment of l'esprit de l'escalier.  Which means literally 'the staircase wit'. It's when you are on your way home, or just before you fall asleep or, yes, going down the stairs from somebody's place, and you suddenly think of what you SHOULD have said during that argument when thingummybob said whatever it was. Grrrr and feck, you say. Dadblame it anyway, why didn't I? I gather that's what this woman used to say, except that she used far more colourful and forceful words.

I thought of her on my way home from BBC Radio Ulster/Raidio Uladh yesterday. I'd been on Sunday Sequence and the subject under discussion had been RTÉ's treatment of Fr Kevin Reynolds which has cost them (actually cost the southern tax-payer) a seven-figure sum. Allegedly. So there I was on Radio Ulster/Raidio Uladh, throwing in my little two-cents' worth and trying to sound coherent, even though I was on my way to the A & E at the Royal to get a few facial stitches, having cleverly stood on a dangling trainer-lace while jogging about two hours' earlier.  Anyway, I likened the deplorable treatment of Kevin Reynolds with the deplorable treatment of Martin McGuinness by RTÉ, when Miriam O'Callaghan saw fit to single him out and ask him, during a live presidential debate, "Do you go to confession?"

So what triggered my thoughts of that woman and her l'esprit d'escalier? Well, when I raised that "Do you go to confession" point as deplorable RTÉ journalism, presenter William Crawley brushed it aside: "Oh not at all, a perfectly acceptable question, John Kerry was asked the same question in a presidential debate in the US some years ago". So I came back, quick as a flash and said "Uh er um, ah, mmm,ugh". Very intelligent, you got that one. It was only when I was turning onto the M2 that l'esprit d'escalier struck: why in the name of all that's rational hadn't I responded with "How does doing it in America make it right?" Simple question, which would have exposed the flimsiness of Crawley's comment. Grr and feck and dadblame and some other more colourful and forceful words.  There's no flagellation like self-flagellation.

Saturday, 26 November 2011

Catholics voting for the union

Compared to television, radio is a discussion-friendly medium. That’s  because you don’t have to have interesting pictures to go with every word spoken. But only when it's compared to TV. When compared to real-life, radio discussion is thinner than Twiggy. 

An example. On Monday last I was on The Stephen Nolan Show on BBC Radio Ulster/Raidio Uladh. The topic was a recent claim by Peter Robinson  that the future of the union with Britain may depend on Catholics  voting for it. A startling claim and one that bears examination.  Why might the First Minister have come out with this when he did?  

Demographics might be one reason. Figures out last month showed  that in universities here, Catholics comprise nearly 50% of the student population, Protestants around 35%.  The Times  (in which Robinson originally made his claim) cites a recent national audit where children here were asked how they saw themselves: 53% of girls and 55% of boys said Catholic. So with the rumble of that particular demographic tumbril sounding in his ears, maybe Peter is hoping, that not only will Catholics learn to live like Protestants, as Terence O'Neill once famously claimed they could, but that they’ll learn to vote like them too. 

Or maybe it's the unionist opposition Peter has his eye on. There's what's left of the UUP and there's  the Alliance Party, which you’ll remember whipped his Westminster seat from under him last time out. If you picture Catholics having to choose between say, Nelson McCausland (DUP) and  Mike Nesbitt (UUP) or Naomi Long (Alliance), there’s little doubt either the UUP man or the Alliance woman would get the nod. So maybe this is Peter trying to smooth the Catholic-rough corners of the DUP and snooker the opposition. 

Meanwhile back at the Nolan Show on Monday, the switch-board was lighting up as a number of Catholics phoned in to say they’d vote to maintain the link with Britain rather than join a bankrupt republic. What held them back from voting for unionist parties here, they said,  was the stink of sectarianism coming off them. Maybe Peter hopes his statement will get the air-freshener working on his party and that nose-holding Catholics will troop in. 

But what if economics isn't at the heart of this at all? I talked to a unionist politician a while back and he swatted away the economic argument for union. When the south was booming, he said, unionists were against re-unification; now it’s bust  and they still don’t want to join. Might it be that nationalists feel the same way about breaking the link  with Britain? Maybe when the chips are down it’s not actually the economy, stupid, after all. 

Certainly economics wouldn’t be my first or sole reason for favouring Irish re-unification, free from British interference. Were the man living next door to me to move in and start running my financial affairs, he’d probably make a better fist of it than I do. But I still wouldn’t let him cross the threshold  - in fact I'd brain him if he tried.  Why ? An old-fashioned thing called self-respect. I figure I’m all growed-up now, and as a grown-up I must make the decisions, not some next-door-neighbour, however pleasant or rich he may be. 

One last point: you hear a lot of talk these days about people in the north not wanting to become part of a bankrupt republic.  Fair enough; but then nobody’s suggesting they do. When you mix green and orange you don't get all-green, you actually get brown - a totally different colour.  Were we to re-unite the amputated bits of Ireland, free from outside interference, you’d get a new republic. Talk about a fairly-run-down northern state being swallowed up by a totally-run-down southern state is painting a pretend-ogre. 

But as I say,  radio discussion doesn't leave room for much elaboration or nuance. The guy that phones in and sounds fighting mad - it's his voice that hogs the air-time. It doesn't cast much light but the heat is terrific.

Friday, 25 November 2011

Arlene Foster - What fracking interest?

I once went to a movie called Giant in the County Cinema in Omagh. It starred Rock Hudson and was all about Texas and ranchers and cowboys and oil and stuff. I’ve forgotten everything in it except one moment where Rock is in a field on his own. Looking very soulful, he bends down and lifts a handful of soil and holds it against the sky: “The good earth!” he murmurs.

Maybe that’s what Arlene Foster’ll be at down in Fermanagh this weekend  - or maybe she’ll leave that to her husband.  Arlene’s hubby, you see, owns a little parcel of 54  acres down there.  Arlene’s department has granted a licence for shale gas exploration in the area and whaddyaknow, the area includes her hubby’s 54 acres! Arlene was involved in discussion of the licence application and expressed her belief that the licence be granted. This had nothing to do with her hubby’s little bit of ground, however.

A number of MLAs begged to differ. They said “You know, Arlene, you really should have told us about this when we were debating the matter – declared your interest, to wit, that your hubby owns 54 acres of the exploration area”.  In fact  one MLA, Stephen Agnew of the Green Party,  said Arlene should get the sack for keeping the hubby’s land-thing under wraps during the debate. The right and fitting thing would have been to  ‘fess up about a vested interest in the matter at the time.  What interest?  Arlene demanded, like a woman whose virtue has been impugned. Sure it’s my husband has it, not me. And when Noel Thompson on the BBC's ‘Hearts and Minds’ asked her party leader about the notion of sacking Arlene, why, he nearly fell off his studio chair. Sack her? Peter demanded. Why, what rubbish! Arlene has no vested interest. Her husband has, but that’s different.

So now. There we were thinking that down in Fermanagh they took the marriage vows seriously. Especially the one about “All my worldly goods I thee endow”.  But maybe Arlene and her hubby had a different ceremony, or had a little footnote inserted to the effect that yes, all worldly goods we us endow, share and share alike, barring the hubby should happen to find himself with a wee 54-acre patch in the middle of a shale-gas exploration area, in which case that particular worldly good will be his and his only.

So this weekend, should you see a figure down in Fermanagh with a fistful of ground and muttering,  you’ll know who it isn’t. Hubby can shove his fist in  the ground and go on about the good earth until the cows come home across the fracking area  but include Arlene strictly out.  

Sometimes, you know, the DUP are just so damned loveable. A marital partner gets caught in the media headlights  and they just kind of, well, they go all so wobbly-lipped or uneasy or sort of hurt/angry, you want to kiss the sore spot and say “There, there, little man (or woman), it’ll be better in a minute, don’t oo fret oor little heady-weady about it, before oo know it,  those naughty naughty reporter people will have forgotten the whole fracking thing.”

It was never like this for Rock Hudson.


Thursday, 24 November 2011

Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich - a life well-lived

I don't know what sins the late Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich was guilty of, but I feel certain his good qualities will easily outweigh them. TG4 aired  an excellent documentary on his life last night and somebody used the word "ebullience" of him. Good word. He had a life-giving energy, a warmth that not all Irish cardinals (or clerics of any rank) share. Two scenes from the documentary stick in my mind. One is of him on the Late Late Show, I think, in the midst of a group of singers, joining vigorously in a chorus of an Irish song. You could tell he was revelling in the company, the song, the occasion. Tim Pat Coogan testified to the fact that he (the cardinal) had "a heavy hand" with the whiskey bottle  - that he enjoyed a well-filled glass and he enjoyed sharing with others. Again, not a characteristic associated with all the higher echelons of the clergy - or not publicly anyway.

But it was his response to the blanket protest and the Hunger Strike of the 1980s that was most impressive. At a time when other Catholic clergy, including Cardinal Cathal Daly and even the Pope,  were strong in their words of criticism and condemnation of republicans, Ó Fiaich was the only one I remember who actually went into Long Kesh and came out to tell reporters what he saw. He compared conditions to the worst slums of Calcutta - "conditions in which you wouldn't keep an animal, let alone human beings". This didn't make him popular with the British, of course, or with that strand of Irish political thought represented by Garret Fitzgerald. In fact, he was hauled over the coals by no less an ethicist than Maggie Thatcher. For some twenty minutes she lectured  Ó Fiaich - a highly respected Irish historian - on the history of Ireland and Britain, ending her harangue with the impatient question "Britain and Germany have become friends - why can't Britain and Ireland?" That, it seems, was the point where  Ó Fiaich got fed up and pointed out that maybe an answer lay in the fact that Britain  wasn't occupying the Ruhr Valley.

Like Charlie Haughey's wonderfully ambiguous gift of a teapot to Britain's prime minister, that rejoinder alone makes  Tomás Ó Fiaich's life worth living.                                                                                                            

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Mistakes, lies and selective outrage

I love the way people use words. Take the word “mistake”.  At present it’s being used by RTÉ. They speak of “One of the gravest editorial mistakes ever made” by the national broadcaster. They’re referring, as you probably know, to the showing of a Prime Time programme where they presented as fact that a  Fr Kevin Reynolds had raped a minor and had a child by her when he was working in Kenya 30 years ago. This, despite the fact that Fr Reynolds had offered to take a paternity test prior to the programme’s airing.

Abuse of words frequently, as George Orwell liked to point out, reflects abuse of truth. What was made by RTÉ over the Reynolds programme was not a mistake, except you see getting caught out as a mistake. It was a decision. They decided to bash on regardless, very likely on the assumption that the public would lap up without question yet another case of clerical sexual abuse. They did this, knowing that the programme would destroy Fr Reynolds’s reputation and inflict mental and emotional suffering on an innocent man.  Their “mistake” wouldn’t have been unearthed if Fr Reynolds hadn’t taken them to court, and he wouldn’t have been able to take them to court if he hadn’t been supported by some decent lawyers working ‘pro bono’.

Pat Rabbitte, never a man to shirk a big word, says we need an independent inquiry to know why such an “egregious error” was made. “There is extensive public disquiet about the case and it involves the national broadcaster. Taken together, this provides the basis for the decision that was taken”. The decision, that is, to hold an inquiry.

But there wouldn’t have been any public disquiet if Fr Reynolds hadn’t pressured RTÉ by taking them to court and the facts of the case being made known.

There is a disquieting, not-too-obvious-but-still-there anti-Catholic Church strand in the Irish media. If this case does nothing else, it might give the Irish public cause to question if they’re being told the whole truth about the Catholic clergy. They’re a far-from-perfect group of people, the clergy, but I find myself wondering how many other Fr Reynolds there are out there who were denounced for sexual abuse of minors but didn’t have the good luck to have evidence that stopped his persecutors in their tracks.

And I find myself still thinking of Rabbitte’s “extensive public disquiet” and the involvement of the national broadcaster being the key elements in mounting an independent inquiry into the matter. Can you think of another recent event where there was “extensive public disquiet” and the involvement of the national broadcaster?  I can. It involved a politician who, in the course of a political debate, was accused – without evidence -  of murder and asked if he went to confession. It happened on – would you believe it? – the same programme series, and it provoked not just disquiet but seething rage, particularly north of the border. Which meant, in Rabbitte’s egregious way of thinking, it didn’t count.

It’s called selective moral indignation.  Nice mouthful, isn’t it? You should try using it next time out, Pat. Or even try thinking about it. 

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

The British army - Gone (sort of) but not forgotten (ouch)

My father, a conservative man without a bigoted bone in his body, didn’t like the British army. A brother of mine puts this down to a clash he had with a British officer and his wife, when the pair were billeted in our house for a time during WW2. Another sibling claims it had to do with ribald remarks some British soldiers directed at one of my sisters, then in her early teens. Whatever the reason, my father had no time for the uniformed figures  that lived in the army camp across the river from us.  That was decades ago. The camp is gone now but  when I think of it, the shadow of my father’s hostility and the reasons for it remain.

I mention this because reports from the N Ireland audit office today say in so many words that the Stormont Executive were taken for a ride when they were handed  back six former British army bases eight years ago. How so? OK, in some cases they had to pay for the transfer, but still – prime sites and all that.

Well you see, the the catch is, the British army left the soil contaminated with fuel spills, lead, asbestos and other harmful chemicals, and it slipped their minds to mention this when they were passing over the sites. To decontaminate Long Kesh the cost is over £8,000,000.  To decontaminate the Fort George army base they figure it’ll cost somewhere between £4,000,000 and £5,000,000. The British MoD, a kindly body,  has agreed to pay some of the cost, but it’s protected under the settlement from contaminations  which it claims weren’t its fault.

Sounds like something from an Ibsen play, doesn’t it?  The ground is taken over  by the British, then years later given back  with no mention of the fact that the place is now in a poisonous state that’ll take millions to detoxify.  With Ibsen, the pollution of the water and landscape was symptomatic of the unhealthiness of the society. The British army have left us a costly and lasting reminder of what their presence here meant for us.

Did I say meant? Sorry, that was a slip, I should have said ‘means’ – there are still over 5,000 British troops still here. They haven’t gone away, you know. 

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Pat Finucane - why his death matters so much

So – what do you think of the Finucane case? I heard someone on radio today saying the Finucane family had been caught flat-footed by David Cameron’s refusal to hold an independent inquiry into the killing of the Belfast solicitor.  I’m not sure what was meant by “flat-footed”  but if it meant they were disappointed, the observation’s accurate. The family had  been given to understand an inquiry was forthcoming, they were called to Downing Street and then told that nothing of the sort would be happening, they’d have to depend on the integrity of a British judge. ( Excuse me a minute, the cat needs  putting out,  he’s having a fit of some sort…)

Where were we? Ah yes, the Finucanes.  Every time I see members of that family on-screen I’m struck by two things: a kind of bleak grief that shows on all their faces,  and by their gritted-teeth refusal to give up on their quest for the truth about their husband/father’s slaying.  I sympathise with them on the first – to have witnessed the dinner-time horror that they did would have driven lesser people insane – and I marvel at their dogged refusal to let the British government palm them off with anything less than the total, uncomfortable/unforgivable truth. It’s over twenty years since that horrifying evening and the Finucanes still are searching for the truth of what happened.

Some time ago the British government gave up on pretending there wasn’t state collusion in the loyalist killing of the Belfast solicitor. What the Finucanes and a lot of the rest of us would like to know is, how high did that collusion go and is the British government stalling on an independent inquiry because the trail might even go as far as Downing Street?  Enda Kenny, if you want to be charitable, continued his interest in the case by meeting with the family last week when he was ‘up here’ and spoke of securing American backing for the family in their quest. (If you want to be uncharitable, you could say Kenny got himself filmed with the Finucanes to counteract his arm-punching mateyness with such as the PUP’s Billy Hutchinson during the same visit). Anyway, Kenny’s good deed, even if you believe it was for the wrong reasons, kind of blew up in his face when a number of unionist families wanted to know what he was doing about the loss of their loved ones, and what they see as  at least negligence by the Irish authorities in the pursuit of their killers. A classic case of what the late and loveable David Dunseith would have called what-aboutery but a turbulent experience for Kenny just the same.

There are two uncomfortable facts linked to the Finucane case. One is that his killing differs from killings of unionists by the IRA in one crucial respect: the state was involved in his death. The forces that were sworn to uphold the law and protect the people  in fact broke the law and in this case murdered a person. No matter how cruel or unjustified any killing by the IRA – and there were a number -  they were carried out by what the state would deem terrorists. By being a part of the killing of Pat Finucane, the state has struck at the heart of organized society and any notion of order, let alone justice.  The state’s involvement makes the Finucane killing qualitatively different from all IRA killings.

The second uncomfortable fact about the Finucane case is that it has received enormous publicity in part because he was a solicitor. What you usually hear, and with justification,  is that the killing of a solicitor who by definition works to uphold the law is particularly heinous. That’s true. But another, less often acknowledged reason was that Pat Finucane was an educated, middle-class man, and in our twisted view of things that somehow makes his killing worse. Had he been, a lorry-driver or a brick-layer, it’s doubtful if his death would have received the same headlines.

It’s worth keeping that in mind because there are dozens, maybe hundreds of cases from the conflict years where people have lost a loved one and are convinced that the forces of the state were implicated in their killing. These deaths are far from as well known and their chances of finding out the truth are even more remote than those of the Finucane family.

Of course a family’s grief is equally painful, regardless of the status of the person killed and/or the source of the killing. But the death of Finucane, an upholder of the law at the hands of the government’s own forces, has a bitter irony that is unique.  Provided, of course, that you don’t believe Rosemary Nelson, another solicitor, was a victim of state collusion as well. 

Friday, 18 November 2011

From free will to the Good Friday Agreement

You may not have heard it – you may have been busy greasing the cat’s boil or doing some equally useful work  - but Monday morning last callers to The Stephen Nolan Show  on BBC Radio Ulster/Raidio Uladh were discussing free will. “Eh?” you say. “A free will phone-in on a Monday morning? Bit airy-fairy, that”.

Well no, not really. You see the issue under discussion was whether there should be a ban on smoking in cars. Nobody was saying it’s good to blow smoke into the lungs of your children in a confined space; the debate was whether not doing so should be left to our own free will or whether there ought to be a law.

Big issue, that, because it boils down to whether we believe doing the right thing is best left to each individual or whether the state through its laws should pressure us into doing the right thing.

What do I think? Well, let me first point you to two public issues that have undergone a total transformation in my lifetime.

The first is smoking. When I was young, everybody smoked. The school I went to even had a special shed for us Big Boys  (15 and older) where we allowed to stand and suck on our Gallahers Blues or Sweet Aftons. As young adults, when you went into somebody’s house, you automatically reached for the fags, passed them round. We smoked in cars, in houses, writing, playing poker, on the toilet, in the pub. If we could have smoked while asleep we would have.  We knew it was damaging us (we even called them ‘coffin nails’). And now? All changed. Now the few who still smoke stand huddled outside buildings, indulging their vice  and looking miserable.

The other big change has been in drink-driving. When I first got my licence, the guy who could lower six or eight pints and then drive home was not exactly a hero but certainly no villain. He was a laugh, that’s what he was. A rogue. Wobbling all over the place, God, did you see him! The notion of phoning for a taxi just because you were half-cut would have sounded like the actions of a madman. All changed.  Now, anybody who drinks and drives is seen as a public menace who deserves the stiffest of sentences and his licence revoked.

In both cases, the public opinion turnaround didn’t happen because it was left to people’s free will – laws were passed  that forebade smoking in pubs and restaurants, other laws were passed which said that if you drank and got caught behind a car wheel,  you’d be a sorry boy or girl. The laws acted as a kind of scaffolding that made public opinion turnaround possible.

And in politics? Well the Alliance Party, bless their little cotton socks, have historically urged us all to be nicer to one another – Trevor Ringland’s “one small step” philosophy would eventually lead us away from separateness and sectarianism. Nice idea. But it took the muscle of the McBride principles to persuade employers to end discrimination, it took laws against incitement to religious hatred to damp down the uberbigots,  it took a minimum-wage law to make sure employers paid their workers half-properly.  Once the law’s in place, of course, people begin to see that decent pay and non-sectarianism and not poisoning ourselves make sense. Social responsibility grows after legal protection has allowed it to emerge.

Otherwise there are always excuses, aren’t there? Left to our own devices, the drag is downward – we opt for the easy, the self-pleasuring option. Only after we’ve had a law passed that protects us from our worst impulses does the public mood change.

But here’s the bad new, politically speaking. The Good Friday Agreement says that there’ll be a constitutional change here only when a majority in the north want it. In the end, the Agreement leaves an end to partition and its attendant absurdities to a change of political thinking by a sizeable number of unonists. 

Do you see signs that, thirteen years after the Agreement, unionists have started to stop puffing the political fag in confined spaces or driving the political car while legless? Can’t say I’ve noticed it myself.  

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Tackling sectarianism - the roots are deep

There was an article in yesterday’s Irish Times, drawing uncomplimentary comparisons between what the Scottish Parliament has done to stamp out sectarianism in that country and the absence of an effective policy against sectarianism here.  It’s a daft article – sectarianism has been here since at least 1784, when in Co Armagh they established the Peep O’ Day boys  - also known as the Protestant Boys or Wreckers, which eventually morphed into the Orangemen.

The article mentions two areas here as sources of sectarianism – housing and education. Oh really? I spent my working life going into Catholic and state/Protestant schools, working with Catholic and Protestant teachers and students. Never once did I hear a bigoted comment from any of them. The reverse in fact. The notion that Catholic schools foster intolerance is so much facile bunkum. Catholic schools work to offer Catholic values to their students, and as that good East Belfast Protestant C S Lewis said, “Education without values, as useful as it is, seem rather to make Man a more clever devil”.

As to housing – it’s true that the overwhelming percentage of housing here is located in areas that are overwhelmingly Protestant or Catholic – i.e., not mixed. Regrettable, I believe, since variety is always more interesting than monotone, but it’s where people choose to live – the middle class as well as the working class. Regrettable, perhaps, but other than the social equivalent of a shotgun wedding, I don’t think there’s much can be done about it.

What can be done is for our leaders to lead with good example. When we see the DUP and Sinn Féin working together, we tend to take our cue from them. But for this to work, both sides have to be equally committed to openness and friendliness, and the unhappy truth is that  the DUP team sometimes seems to be digging its heels in. Witness Peter Robinson’s by-now famous “Not on my watch!” remark, when the possibility of change to the badge or title of H M Prisons was raised.

Unfortunately you can’t legislate for people to cleanse their hearts of sectarianism; you can only show them the benefits of getting rid of it, as (paradoxically) the same Peter Robinson did when he attended the inauguration of Michael D Higgins as President of Ireland. Above all, we need to listen to each other, work together and show each other equal respect, whether it's a question of wearing poppies or Easter lilies. The fact that two major centenaries are approaching – the signing of the Ulster Covenant and the Easter Rising – would be a good opportunity to exemplify good behaviour. Maybe set up a cross-party group to explore the facts and the best way to commemorate these events. Realising that all of us on this island are bound together by our history would be a good practical start to tackling the roots of sectarianism.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Peter and the prisons: commitment or intolerance?

"It's not about the Boyne in 1690 or Dublin in Easter 1916. It's about dragging a small minority of folk in our country into the twenty-first century".

Sounds like something by a politician or other worthy in this part of Ireland, doesn't it? But it's not - it's Scottish National Party's justice minister Kenny MacAskill, talking about sectarianism in his country. Equally applies here, you say? You could be right.

Except the problem is distinguishing between sectarianism and commitment to a particular faith/political position.  If you're a Protestant/unionist, chances are you think you've a right to commemorate a centrally-significant date like 1690. Ditto if you're a republican in terms of 1916. But does that mean you're living in the past or being offensive to others?

Well, one way of evading such a charge would be to show respect for others in the way you  celebrate/commemorate your view of the world. Such as? Such as holding your commemoration in your own place, not outside the front door of somebody else's house, so to speak. You'd also do well to avoid talking or singing in an abusive or threatening way about those with different thinking from your own.

Which brings us to Peter Robinson's threat to resign if the badge or name of the prison service was changed. The First Minister didn't say "Not an inch!" but his threat came as near as dammit to that in its intolerance of other views. He's entitled to argue the case for badge and name retention, of course. That's commitment.  But he  could have made that case  when the matter came up for Assembly discussion, rather than to an array of greedy media microphones. And since cross-party support is necessary, he could have successfully defended the badge and name then. But instead he chose the now-hear-this-not-an-inch route. And you're right, Kenny -  that kind of attitude needs dragging and kicking into the twenty-first century.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Sam and Miriam - being dropped and being fair

Sam Smyth

Miriam O'Callaghan
Two big media stories reported in The Irish Times  this morning. In the first, Denis O’Brien, who owns the two radio stations Today FM  and Newstalk , has rejected claims by Eamon Dunphy that he interfered in the editorial workings of Newstalk  and that he “hated journalism”.  O’Brien says he’s being subjected to “a disturbing trend of nastiness and cynicism” by the south’s media since he dropped presenter Sam Smyth (late of this parish) from Today FM.

The second media story concerns RTÉ.  Press Ombudsman John Horgan is going to carry out a review of RTÉ’s editorial process. This follows the airing of a ‘Prime Time’ programme (presenter one Miriam O’Callaghan) which claimed that a Fr Kevin McReynolds had had sex with a minor and fathered a child by her while he was working in Kenya. Fr McReynolds denied the claim and prior to the programme going out offered to take a paternity test. RTÉ ignored his offer and aired their programme. Fr McReynolds has since taken the paternity test, proven his innocence and is now taking a High Court libel case against RTÉ.

Both cases show how murky the workings of the southern media are. I like Dunphy – he’s a far better soccer commentator than anyone I can think of in England – but on this one, like most of the south’s media, he’s barking up the wrong tree. Presenters don’t like being dropped, especially if they’ve been presenting a particular programme – in Smyth’s case a politics programme – for a long time. If you’ve listened to him, you’ll know Smyth has a slight speech impediment but that’s not why I’m glad O’Brien dropped him.  I’m glad because (i) Smyth was dull and (ii) on any topic about the north, he was, um, what shall I say, not my favourite commentator (there, I think that keeps me on the right side of the law).  His many mates in the media may consider him a terrible loss; I suspect the rest of us will struggle on without him. 

The RTÉ story is truly shocking. This wasn’t just a case of being biased or dull – this was a case of wrecking a man’s life.  We now know that Fr McReynolds was innocent of the crimes RTÉ’s Miriam O’Callaghan presented him as guilty of. Even worse, RTÉ and presumably O’Callaghan refused to let Fr McReynolds defend himself before they smeared filth all over his reputation.  Which raises three points: how many other bogus charges of clerical sexual abuse are there,  did the question “Do you go to confession?” cross O’Callaghan’s mind as she presented this glaring example of all that’s wrong with southern journalism, and will anybody lose their RTÉ job for their part in this despicable frame-up?  I don’t know the answer to the first two questions but I’ll bet I know the answer to the last. It’s No.

Monday, 14 November 2011

C S Lewis - the pride of East Belfast

I’ve spent the last week or so reading and re-reading the writer C S Lewis, because last night I had to take part in a radio panel discussion about him on  Newstalk . Given that Lewis was a good East Belfast Protestant, they’ve erected a statue to him somewhere on the Newtownards Road, complete with wardrobe as seen in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’.   There are so many aspects of the man you could talk about, such as his intelligence (three Firsts from Oxford), his courage (fought and wounded in the First World War but never dwells on it in his writing) or his relations  with women (he lived with a woman 26 years his senior because he’d made a war-time pact with a fellow-soldier that if he survived and the fellow-soldier didn’t, he’d look after his mother).

But it’s his contradictory attitudes to England and the English that I find  particularly intriguing.  He went from Holywood, Co Down  to England for the first time and he was not impressed by the natives or their landscape: “The strange English accents with which I was surrounded seemed like the voices of demons. But what was worse was the English landscape…I have made up the quarrel since; but at that moment I conceived a hatred for England which took many years to heal”.

Having like many another Irishman a heavily-Anglicised education, he came late to Irish writers, particularly  W B Yeats. By this time he was an established don at Oxford:  “I am often surprised to find how utterly ignored Yeats is among the men I have met: perhaps his appeal is purely Irish – if so, then thank the gods that I am Irish”.

And he’s particularly good on Irish people living in England: “Like all Irish people who meet in England we ended by criticisms on the invincible flippancy and dullness of the Anglo-Saxon race. After all there is not doubt that the Irish are the only people: with all their faults I would not gladly live or die among another folk”.

But of course that’s exactly what he didn’t do. He actually lived and died in England,  and his friends were English academics like J R R Tolkein (yes, the Lord of the Rings man) and Neville Coghill. He’d been brought up in Holywood, he tells us, never to trust a Papist, and was happy to discover that one of his best friends at Oxford was just that.

He was a brilliant, kindly man, who wrote about everything - wonderful children’s books, science-fiction books, books about Christianity, books about why bad things happen (The Problem of Pain), books where he pretended to be the devil (The Screwtape Letters) and books where he described and analysed the loss of his wife (A Grief Observed).  Reading him is like encountering a mind that’s going off like a Catherine wheel, ideas lighting up the sky in every direction. Sometimes as I read, it felt as if I was reading that other great Protestant Irishman, George Bernard Shaw. In my book, there’s no higher compliment. 

Saturday, 12 November 2011

The day partition died

Sometimes it's easy to believe that the partition of Ireland has worked. In the north for fifty years, it allowed unionists to discriminate and gerrymander at will;  in the south,  Fianna Fail became so used to power, cronyism and corruption, they rotted the state.  And as if that weren't bad enough, there were nominal nationalists in the north who not-so-secretly adopted a, what will we say, an attitude of superiority to the people in the south. They don't have our quality of education, they tend to be more devious than we straight-talking northerners, they aren't as hard-working or reliable as we are. That's so-called nationalists, remember. In the recent presidential election, the south returned the compliment in spades, Mary McAleese was an intruder from 'up there' but somehow she'd turned out to be the exception that proved the rule and really was pure gold. Martin McGuinness, however,  was definitely from 'up there' and he was just bringing his northern 'baggage' of violence and division, the man can't even tell the truth, we want no part of him - or any of yez. Go back up where yez belong. The border might not be visible when you drive from Derry to Buncrana or Belfast to Dublin, but the sense of difference is alive and kicking and hoping to grow stronger every day.

Or so it can seem, until a day like yesterday comes along. I still have reservations about Michael D Higgins  - far from being humble, as Enda Kenny suggested, he obviously is a small man with a very big opinion of himself - but there was no doubt in yesterday's inauguration ceremonies that he was indeed the President of Ireland. Peter Robinson, Martin McGuinness, Alasdair McDonnell, Tom Elliot  - they were all there, and there was a sense of rejoicing in the Irishness that unites us all. A good day, for all its dampness.

And then, to round things off, there was last night in Estonia. The team may call itself the Republic of Ireland, but it could save space and ink by calling itself simply 'Ireland'. They were cheered on by thousands of southern suppporters and northern supporters who'd made a 17-hour journey together to get there; they were cheered again by tens of thousands of Irish people north and south here at home, who punched the air and kicked imaginary balls around the living-room and woke the baby with off-key choruses of 'The Fields of Athenry'.  Was this our team? You bet it was.  Were we not uneasy about supporting the team from the south? Not for a moment. Just as players from anywhere on the island of Ireland are eligible to play for Trappatoni's team, so supporters from anywhere and everywhere on the island of Ireland were so filled with delight and pride and anticipation of even better things to come, they could have floated to the ceiling and stuck there.

That's sport for you, particularly team sports. It draws us all in, and the divisions that some politicians and a considerable section of the media would like to nurture between north and south  - they melt like morning mist in a strong sun, like the glorious sun that's shining in my wet garden as I type these words.

They say the very basis of logic is that a thing can't be true and not be true at the same time. True. But life is sometimes larger than logic. Yes, partition exists; at the same time and on  glorious, golden occasions like yesterday,  it doesn't.

OK,  the temptation's too strong - I'll say it. Wouldn't it be great if it was like this all the time?

Friday, 11 November 2011

The past - it's difficult, mainly because it's over

I've been asked to meet with some visitors to Belfast later this morning. They're here to gather material for a drama production relating to our ways of dealing with the past, so I'm trying to pull together my thoughts, such as they are,  on the subject.

The most important thing, I think, is to admit that the past is past. When we say we're 'dealing with' something, it suggests we're in a position to shape it, get it under control, mould it. The past is pretty resistant to that - it's happened, and, if as has been so often the case here, that past is full of suffering and loss, that suffering and loss have happened and no amount of manoeuvring is going to change that. At the same time, I remember being in the Guildhall Square in Derry when David Cameron was beamed live from the House of Commons with his famous apology for Bloody Sunday, and the crowd cheered and clapped. I suggested to someone with me that if I'd had a loved one shot dead by the state, an apology over thirty years later wouldn't begin to satisfy me, but he insisted it was very important for the victims.  It may well be. But it's certainly not justice.

There are two parties involved in our history of conflict - the combatants and the victims. Anything that can be done, however illogical, to help them cope with their pain must be applauded. One line on this is that if we had a South-African-style  truth and reconciliation commission, people could tell what they'd had done to them, combatants could tell what they did, and the truth would out. And that would be some comfort to victims.

I don't know, and not being a victim or directly related to a victim, I can't speak with authority. But my speculation is that, contrary to popular belief, talking about what's happened to you isn't always the best way of coping with it. I'm sure all of us can bring to mind moments of pain, self-inflicted or inflicted by others, that we carry with us. Would airing these help us 'come to terms' with the hurt? I'm not sure it would.

One of the characteristics of old soldiers is that they rarely seem keen on talking about what they did, what happened to them. I'm convinced a lot of the combatants in our conflict feel likewise. Certainly the British government doesn't seem to believe in telling people about its role in the conflict, otherwise the massive expense and time devoted to the Saville Inquiry would not have happened. And Cameron's government would have held a full inquiry into the Pat Finucane case, rather than dodge it again and again.

In past conflicts - when the US dropped atomic bombs on Japan, when Germany over-ran France, when the Russians lost millions of men in the Second World War,  when well over a million Vietnamese were killed in horrible ways by US troops - in all these cases, the only healer appears to have been time. Helped, I should add, by the refusal of those most wounded to allow hatred or thoughts of revenge to consume them.

Would a truth and reconciliation commission here help victims reach that desired state? Would all those who inflicted the suffering tell all that they'd done and ask forgiveness? I think the confident  answer to both questions is No.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

How (and when) to bury a new road

Now this is what I’d call a very good day for burying a road. The day after yesterday, sort of thing. When you’ve cancelled all those fancy  Fianna Fail plans for digging tunnels and sending fast-speed trains through them and all round Dublin, there couldn’t be a better time  to follow up with the cancellation – oops, sorry, follow up with the postponement of that damned A5 linking Derry and Aughnacloy. Well yeah sure, there’ll be a bit of yelling, but  we’ll hardly hear it with yelps still coming out of north Dublin getting their stuff cancelled. Yes, yes, yes, I know I promised half the money, and yes yes yes, I know the A5 would   have shown cross-border co-operation working for everyone,  I know it would have created jobs, I KNOW it would have injected mobility into that part of the country. Oh, and right, it would have saved a fair number of car-crash fatalities as well.  But hey, you have to take the rough with the smooth,  there’s people are dying all the time. Besides,  the unionists will be delighted with us – there are no votes worth talking about for them west of the Bann anyway. We keep our money in our pocket and at the same time we show we’re sensitive to unionist political sensitivities.. A win-win situation, really.

Donegal, did you say?  Ah yes,  Donegal. Time was when they’d have returned a decent Fine Gael TD but look what they went and did last time out – elected a pair of bloody Shinners, that big gink Doherty and his friend MacLochlainn. Well maybe this will soften their cough for them. Sometimes, what's more,  you have to be firm with a section of the electorate. Show them that actions have consequences.  “We’re too far away from Dublin!” – God, if I heard them whining that once I heard them fifty times. “We’re cut aff up here!” In that damned annoying accent of theirs. Well,  they’ll stay cut aff,  they’ll stay the same distance from Dublin and everywhere else for the next ten years minimum. Let them keep that in mind the next time they go to the polls. Thing is, lads, next time out, you play ball with us and whaddyaknow, we might, we just might  play ball with you. Meanwhile , pull the plug there, Leo, would you? And for feck’s sake remember to say ‘postponed’, not the c –word. And if you can say something about ‘up there’ as well it’d be appreciated. Good man.

Vincent Browne, Michael D Higgins and Father Jack

Vincent Browne is a  man I like. I remember him at UCD where he was an active Fine Gaeler, but he was free from a certain condescending swank that infused others such as Henry Kelly and Sinead Cusack. But like the rest of us, Vincent gets carried away occasionally and he does so today in the Irish Times.

He reports on Michael D Higgins’s last speech to the Dail  under the heading ‘Vision of inclusive republic was Higgins’s parting shot’ and he concludes that we now have an Irish president who’s better than we deserve.  In support of this, he points to Higgins’s insistence that there’s a helluva lot more to democracy than voting once every four or five years, and if you want to effect radical change, you have redistribute power at every level of life: “A highly participative, inclusive republic was the one in the vision of those who made the case for Irish independence at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. It was this which was stolen from the people after the foundation of the State”.  Browne cites two TDs who were in the chamber and who said it was the best speech Higgins had ever delivered and that it was a privilege to be there to hear it.

Sometimes what you don’t say is even more important than what you do say. The most important word in the Higgins quotation above is the sixth-last word, and to save you the bother of counting back, it’s “after”.  In other words,  the problems arose after the partition of the country. So Higgins makes the speech of his life about an ‘”inclusive republic” and doesn’t mention that one and a half million Irish people on this island are excluded from it. Browne hails the speech and Higgins, and doesn’t even mention the word ‘partition’.

Are these people for real? Do they not know the boiling resentment a lot of northern nationalists and republicans feel about being air-brushed out of history and out of contemporary consideration? Compared to us, the Irish who fought with the British Army in the two World Wars received massive recognition by the south.

Successive governments in the south spent fifty years giving lip-service to national reunification,  culminating in Jack Lynch’s pathetic ‘We will not stand idly by’ speech in 1969. If we’re to judge by Browne or Higgins, they’ve now dropped even the lip-service. As Fr Jack might have pithily put it: “Inclusive republic my arse”.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

PSNI - How are we doin'?

Ten years, eh? Doesn't seem that long since they devised that ghastly PSNI badge that has so many symbols on it, you feel like you're on drugs, just looking at it. They had Deputy Chief Constable Judith Gillespie on radio and TV, being blonde and smiling and  telling us how much things have changed and how hard it was to scramble from the back of a land-rover when wearing a skirt. Her take on the old RUC? Vaseline-lensed nostalgia, start to finish.   

Understandable, I suppose, since over three hundred RUC officers were killed in the Troubles. And certainly she has reason to smile, and not just because she's career-confident enough to turn down a £500,000 retirement lump sum (no, I didn't insert an extra nought back there).  The police service she heads up today is a lot different from the one that sat astride the population here in the 1970s and 80s. But there are a number of things which, as I said on  the BBC's 'Sunday Sequence', still bother me.

1.    Numbers. The proportion of Catholics in the service is now just under one-third. Good. But not good enough. The percentage of Catholics in the population is nearly half.
2.    Rank.  We're told the increased number of Catholics in the service but we're not told what rank they occupy. Why not? Is there a mechanism in place to show the proportion of Catholics/nationalists/republicans holding senior positions? Not much point recruiting more Catholics/nationalists/republicans if they stay at the hewers-of-wood/drawers-of-water level.
3.    Class. Of the Catholics recruited, what proportion come from,say, the Bogside? Crossmaglen? The Falls Road? A police service that's filled with middle-class Catholics  makes little sense - the conflict didn't centre on the leafy suburbs. Is anyone monitoring class intake? And if they are, will they tell us? Because they should.
4.    Class exile. When a young working-class man or woman joins the police, they quickly become middle-class. Why wouldn't they, with that salary? While this,  policing-wise,  is better than being middle-class born and bred, it still creates a gap between that person and the community from which they come. We're back to the problem of the police officer as alien or semi-alien in the community s/he polices.
5.    Servant. Brendan Behan once said there is no situation so bad that the arrival of a policeman does not make it worse.  An exaggeration but contains a truth. How can police officers be made to see that they are the servants of the community and not its supervisors?

What all this comes down to is the way the police are seen by the community which they are supposed to serve. It's a problem in most western countries but that's little comfort.  Those in the least-well-off areas see themselves as being at the bottom of the heap and the police as part of what maintains the status quo - i.e., keeps them there.

How to solve all these difficulties? I haven' t a clue. But I know that patting ourselves on the back for how far we've come while keeping our heads in the sand about the difficulties remaining is to ask for trouble. Or Troubles.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

The SDLP : the torch passes...

Pffffffftttt. But more of that later.

I've shaken a fair number of political hands in my time. I shook hands with Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau (ask your ma). If I'd jumped over the top of four guys in Newcastle-upon-Tyne I could have shaken hands with US President Jimmy Carter. I've shaken hands with Taoiseach John Bruton, with First Minister Peter Robinson, with Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, with Gerry Adams TD, with Paul Berry ex-MLA (remember him?), with Jim Allister MLA, with Bernadette McAliskey ex-MP, with Gregory Campbell MP. But I've never shaken hands with Alasdair 'Turn off those lights I'm blinded' McDonnell.

But my wife has. Some time ago we were at a book launch and I was mooching about, trying to find some free drink, when my other half found herself being introduced to the MP for South Belfast. The person doing the introducing mentioned that she was married to me. The good Doctor  extended the hand that had tended a thousand wounds and spoke in that big-chested carrying voice of his. "Oh dear" he said. "You have my deepest sympathies, Mrs Collins".

A couple of hours ago I watched the good Doctor's SDLP-leader speech live on TV. Now that I've managed to stop laughing I can only say "Oh dear. You have my deepest sympathies, SDLP".

What about pffffffftttt? That's the sound of a political party tearing itself to pieces.

And this is a clip of Alasdair hard at work in Westminster:


Saturday, 5 November 2011

Being an SDLP leader - Lord, you know it ain't easy.

The SDLP must think they’re living under a curse. It started around the turn of the century, when Sinn Féin moved out and passed them on the electoral road, and varoomed off into the middle distance. More immediately they must feel particularly jinxed. They were arguing over their leadership as Sinn Féin rolled into Belfast and held its first ring-a-ding Ard Fheis in the north, in the nice new Waterfront Hall. Then the prospects of the SDLP leadership candidates were forgotten as Martin McGuinnness  grabbed the headlines by joining the race for the Aras. That went on for weeks, and the fact that McGuinness didn’t win was small enough consolation.  Now the SDLP are holding their annual conference, not in the Waterfront Hall but the Ramada Hotel in Belfast. Not quite stage centre, really. And yes, the air this weekeend is filled with excited cries and interviews and TV cameras, but  they’re not for Patsy McGlone or Alex Attwood, they’re for Justin Bieber and Lady Ga-ga. That massive stage in front of Belfast City hall has been constructed, not for Conall McDevitt but for MTV performers.

So you bet it’s tough when you’ve been No 1 and now you’re a distant No 2.  A bit like being in a game where you know, no matter how hard you sweat or how much you urge your men forward, you’re going to be beaten. Discouraging.  Makes you want to tear off your jersey, puncture the ball and head for the changing rooms with a shouted “Aw, fuck the lot of yis!” over your shoulder.  But there must be a small corner in the heart of the SDLP candidates that is comforted, that feels warmth. Because the SDLP does have its die-hard supporters. They still elect MLAs.

That’s because there are those nationalist voters who have always identified with the SDLP. Like the candidates for SDLP leadership, they’re, getting on a bit in years, but that doesn’t mean their opinions have softened. In fact, as their arteries have hardened, so have their opinions. Not so much in favour of the wreckage they see when they look at the SDLP as in the contempt they feel when they think of Sinn Féin.

There’s the violence thing of course. Some of these people have, directly or indirectly, been damaged by IRA violence, and they lay responsibility for that solely at the feet of Sinn Féin. They subscribe to the thesis, successfully propagated south of the border, that the IRA were the initiatiors and the continuers of violence for more than two decades. This despite the fact that early black-and-white TV images show civil rights marchers being beaten off the streets,
and later images show bodies bleeding from bullet wounds inflicted by the British Army.  None of that counts – the IRA was the cause of it all, start, middle and finish.

Then there’s the class thing. You want to vote for political leaders you look up to, and when the SDLP faithful look at  Sinn Féin they see people who’ve had limited schooling, people who say ‘Done’ instead of ‘Did’ and ‘have went’ instead of ‘have gone’, and their middle-class sensibilities recoil. How could you vote for somebody like that, with their awful English and their equally awful jail-Irish?  It’s no accident that of the four SDLP leadership candidates, one is  a doctor and one a lawyer, and all four would rather rip out their own tongue, toast it and eat it in small forkfuls than say ‘infer’ when they mean ‘imply’.

So the SDLP gathered at the Ramada have that small consolation, that there are those in the northern population who remain faithful to the “dignified protest” days, and will go on being faithful until their dying day. For a small pool of the northern population,  Patsy McGlone, Conall McDevitt,  Alastair McDonnell and Alex Attwood are still big fish. The trouble is, the pool keeps getting smaller every year and even the bravest fish struggle to breathe as the pool dries up.  

Friday, 4 November 2011

Maybe they should listen to George

As I write this I’m sitting waiting to be called by the Stephen Nolan Show on BBC radio, to talk about whether British soldiers from here are being treated unfairly. It appears that Scotland, Wales and England all have a specially-appointed advocate to see that soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress are looked after, following time spent in Afghanistan or Iraq. There’s no such advocate for this region. If the debate happens – these things are a moveable-at-the-last-moment feast – I plan to argue for equal treatment for British soldiers from here.

Not that anyone should be surprised because things here are different  –this sad little corner always has been made an exception. I interviewed a woman yesterday – Bernadette McAliskey. Decades back when as the youngest MP ever she made In her maiden speech in the House of Commons, she denounced the British government for looking the other way while a corrupt, discriminating state was allowed to grow and grow until it exploded into violence.  So the different treatment of British soldiers from here doesn’t surprise me.

There’s a terrible irony, too, in the concern for the suffering of British troops  but considerably less concern for those who were  their victims. The Bloody Sunday families had to wait nearly forty years for a “Sorry!” from David Cameron, let alone justice. Far from helping victims,  the British government blocked the release of vital documents for decades. It’s done the same over the Dublin-Monaghan bombings. Or consider the victims in the Finucane family, who saw their husband and father riddled with bullets at the dinner table by people acting with the support of the ‘security forces’.  Their pursuit of truth continues, the latest development featuring  another slap in the face from Cameron, who refuses to hold an inquiry into the lawyer’s death. And there are dozens of other victims of state violence suffering and we never even hear about them.

Last Friday I saw George Clooney’s latest movie, The Ides of March. It features Clooney as a US presidential candidate, and there’s one memorable moment where he talks about how to solve the problem of terrorism. “Stop depending on their  oil” he says.  “Stop invading their countries. Then the terrorism will stop”.

Maybe Cameron and his cabinet should all be bought a ticket for The Ides of March.  With post-traumatic stress as with so much else, prevention  is the best cure.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Liam Adams is innocent

Liam Adams is innocent. He is, you know.  The same as you’re innocent and I’m innocent and Uncle Tom Cobley and all are innocent, until proven guilty.  But given the amount of coverage his case has been given, if someone today said  to you “Liam Adams”, somewhere in the back of your mind the thought might very well tumble around “Oh yeah, he sexually abused his daughter, didn’t he?” That’s what highly-publicised charges of misconduct or crime do: the charge becomes the verdict even before the case has been heard.  And don’t tell me people suspend judgment until the decision is made in court regarding guilt or innocence. Supposing it was you who were charged with the crime Liam Adams has been charged with. Do you really believe there wouldn’t be a shift in the way your friends and acquaintances and work-colleagues regarded you? It can’t be said often enough: Liam Adams and every single person charged with a crime is innocent,  and stays innocent, until found guilty in a court of law. And sometimes not even then.

Behind the injustice of assumed-guilt lies another injustice: the injustice of guilt by association. I’ve heard and read media reports on  Liam Adams’s extradition to the north several times in the course of the past few days, and in every case – in print and on air – the fact that he’s Gerry Adams’s brother is included.  What effect does that have? It sets up in the public mind a poisonous equations: child abuse – Liam Adams – Gerry Adams. Somehow the charge against Liam Adams becomes a charge against Gerry Adams. 

You think this guilt-by-association idea – or in this case blood-relationship –  is a fantasy? In that case, why, when you apply for the role of, say, Prison Visitor, or whatever it’s called now, are you asked to give your parents’s names, including your mother’s maiden name? Or why are there people who’ll tell you “Pat Finucane – he had relatives that were in the IRA, so…”  It’s in the blood, you’re related to someone who’s seen as criminal,  so clearly you too must be criminal or at the very least have criminal tendencies, better watch out for that guy. It even happens to children.  I’ve heard the occasional bone-brained teacher say in the staffroom :“Oh, you have one of the Murphys/Smiths/McStravicks/Whatever  this year – God pity you!  I taught both the older brothers – they’re a bad lot”.

Could anything be more unjust than to blame people for what their relatives do? Or, as is happening in the Liam Adams case, to form a link in the public mind which you hope will damage a political party.

The law may or may not be a ass. But the way some people manipulate it is venomous.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

How to make a bond-holder happy

Maybe it's worked. Maybe electing Michael D Higgins has turned the south of Ireland's luck. Because today - and we all share in this rejoicing, north and south - the southern government has discovered an extra €3.6 billion it didn't know it had! Can you imagine how much money that is? No, neither can I but it's loads and loads. And loads.

You know how you feel when you find a pound coin or even a fiver down the back of the sofa - part of you is delighted, but another niggling part wants to know what the hell you were doing,  stupid bloody eejit, letting your money slide out of your pocket like that, time to smarten up and look after your few shekels. That's what the south's government is feeling this morning. The government is naturally delighted but The Department of Finance is blaming the National Treasury Management Agency and the Central Statistics Office is lurking in the background trying to look innocent.  The Minister for Finance, though,  rises above all that. David Noonan says that "certainly a mistake took place, that to err is human". Well  of course. Which of us - now come on, be honest - which of us hasn't mislaid the odd billion euro from time to time? I know I have.

And the odd thing is, this news about the billions down the sofa has come just the day before the south gets ready to pour €750 million into the Anglo-Irish bank.  What's that - you thought the Anglo-Irish bank was dead, no longer functioning? Well it is really, but  it's clearly going to get a good funeral. Mind you there are some hotheads and economic illiterates who say that this €750 million is to pay off senior bond-holders who invested in the bank with no guarantee attached, and that it's  just like you or I might put money on a horse (or en election outcome) and find we'd backed the wrong nag. Except, of course, that the bond-holders will hold onto their money (that's why they're called bond-holders) whereas you or I could go and suck our thumb or kick the family cat, we made the bet and we bloody-well lost.

"But why?" you ask. Easy. The reason the tax-payers of the south are giving the bond-holders all that lovely lolly today is that Europe might think badly of Ireland if they didn't. Next you know you'd get a bad name. People on the international street would point you out and say  "See that lot? When foreign investors buy bonds in one of their zombie banks, they haven't even the decency to take the lost money from their tax-payers' pockets and give it to the investors. A cheap, hopeless shower!" And the Irish in Europe would have to hang their heads and shuffle their feet. Our international reputation for being flaithiúil would be shot to pieces.

But the Irish government, God bless them, have made sure no such charge can be made. All day today they'll be shovelling the stuff into the zombie bank, until all €750 million has gone winging back into the pockets of the bond-holders. And I expect you know that next January, they'll be shovelling  a bit  over another billion euro in the same direction. For the same reasons.

Funny how things come together, isn't it? Ninety-one years ago yesterday, after torture, Kevin Barry was hanged in Mountjoy prison. His last words, according to the prison chaplain, were "Hold on and stick to the republic".  I bet he'd be proud of the south's government today.